Remarkable Woman Ann E. Smith

"She's going to be much faster at 75 than at 72," says Derrick Milligan, Ann E. Smith's swim trainer. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune / July 12, 2012)

Firsts come up a lot in conversations about Ann E. Smith.

She was the first African-American woman to win a statewide election in Illinois, for a spot on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Years before, she was the first African-American to be on the full-time faculty at Eastern Illinois University — "It was that long ago," she says drolly — where she taught theater and speech and was the school's first costume designer.

In between, Smith left academia for the insurance business. Within her first two years at Prudential, she earned her way into the million-dollar round table, then started her own brokerage firm with a partner.

Last year, she completed her first Chicago Triathlon. Back pain kept her from crossing the finish line in her previous attempt.

At age 73, Ann Smith is not finished with firsts.

"Each time I've gone into something, it has been something I haven't done before," she said. "Even going into the insurance business, it was (a case of), 'Let me see if I can do this.'"

In the last decade, she has served as president of the not-for-profit Gamaliel, a community organizing concern where Barack Obama received training. She retired in December but returned to assist in a move to new quarters, while training to compete in Sunday's Chicago Triathlon.

"She has had an incredible career; she's successful. And here she is committed to a continual search," said her swim trainer Derrick Milligan, who recently emailed her a video to help her refine her stroke. "She emails me back, 'Thank you for sending this. I'm going to get this.'"

Smith's determination has taught him a thing or two, he said.

"There's no age attached to a student; that quest is without a number," he said.

Indeed, Milligan added, "She's going to be much faster at 75 than at 72."

We chatted with Smith about her achievements, including her participation in this year's triathlon.

Q: How does the triathlon affect your life?

A: I hate to say this, but this is quite a challenge at my age. Last year I came in second in my age group, but let me tell you about that second: It was because there were only two of us in that division. That's inspiring enough for me to go back and do it and see if I can improve. At my fitness center there's a group of us who are now beginning to prepare to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The fact I completed the triathlon has given me inspiration to know that this is another challenge that I'm pretty sure I'll be able to accomplish.

Q: How do you overcome doubt?

A: I think it comes from the fact that practically my entire career has been taking on jobs that no one else had had before, or taking on tasks that were somewhat above my experience. At Northeastern Illinois, I went into administration as the assistant to the president and then acting vice president of academic affairs. At 36, I was the youngest vice president in the system at that time.

Q: How do you negotiate uncharted territory?

A: Growing up in Jefferson City, Mo., I went to a segregated school. My father was the principal. My mother was a teacher at the high school. In order to achieve at that time, you had to do better-than. That just continued to be part of my spirit. There were going to be these challenges, and you just overcome. We were pushed to do well academically as well as athletically. I was on the softball team and played volleyball. My parents just pushed us to achieve.

Q: Did they push gently or firmly?

A: I would say firmly. If you said you were going to do something, then you had to complete it.